Practical Privacy Online

PrivacyThis is not one of the “ZOMG GOOGLE KNOWS WHAT I DO” posts – though those are important as well. Instead, this is about managing your privacy for your physical safety.

Do not think you’re too small-time to worry about privacy. I had my first Facebook stalker (that I’m aware of) when most of my published work was in small ‘zines. If you’re creating content on the internet – anything at all – you may suddenly find the world’s attention on you. All it takes is one popular blogger or tweeter to think your work is cool – and you may not be aware of it until it’s too late. (I’ve had work I’ve been involved with picked up by “weird website awards” back in the 90’s, and by my local newspaper, boingboing, and various well-connected authors since then.)

Be aware that you are always findable. No matter how much (or little) you share on the web, there’s data out there about you. Your goal is to make it hard enough that a casual creeper 1 gets discouraged. If that frightens you a little bit, good. There is no such thing as perfect security; you must remain aware.

Know what you want to share, and what you don’t want to share. I once sent a female podcaster a birthday card; I sent it to her house because she’d put her address on her Facebook page. She said it was a little creepy – because she hadn’t realized where I found the info. Provide some information (or alternatives) easily, so that people looking for it will use the easy-to-find stuff you want them to.

Create alternatives. Too expand on the above: It’s easy to find my PO Box. My current address is not publicly tied to me at all. So if someone wants to send me a paper birthday card, contract, whatever, it’s easy to do without having to reveal my home address. Create a separate e-mail address if you want to, and so on.

Always act like someone’s watching. When you post something online, make sure of three things:
Is it something you’d mind an employer (or potential employer) seeing? So yeah, the beer bong pics need to stay on your PC. Depending on the people you know, this might also require trimming your friends lists on social networking sites if they don’t get a clue.
Is it something you’d mind a skeevy creeper seeing? Would you want a sexual predator knowing your kid’s name and where you live? I didn’t think so. Which is why my kiddo’s name is “kiddo” on the internet.
Is it something that you’d mind a criminal seeing? Do you really want that guy who thinks you’re out to destroy America knowing that you checked in with foursquare at the university late at night? Do you want a burglar knowing you’re going to a convention for four days when they can find your home address?

Regularly obfuscate details. I talk about real-life events in my blog. It’s a safe assumption that I’ve changed a random number of details in a random fashion. When I say I talked to a woman at work, I may have talked to a man at university. Or not. I don’t refer to regular people by name whenever possible (as opposed to other public figures, like authors or businesspeople).

Use Whoisguard or an alternative. If you’ve registered a domain, your real information is on the web and findable. My hosting provider uses Whoisguard, which gives an alternative address. There are other products that do the same thing.

A special note about Facebook. If you have a public persona (including teachers, professors, podcasters, writers, etc), and are already on Facebook, create a fan page now. (PROTIP: If you’re using your real name for your fan page, put your middle initial in either the personal page or the fan page so you can tell them apart.) Limit your personal page to people you “know”. Personally, I limit it to people I’ve personally met and at least talked to – whether in Second Life, at a convention, or whathaveyou. Others limit it to only real-life friends. Whatever limit you’re comfy with, but stick to that. At this point, I do not trust Facebook’s privacy controls. (Some reasoned analysis here; I choose to be paranoid.) As a result, I’m not related to anybody, I didn’t go to high school, and so on. It’s not because I’m worried about data mining2; it’s because I’m concerned about privacy.

If your significant other or kids are upset about this, tell them to deal with it. Seriously. I am not joking about the Facebook stalker. While at GenCon, I heard about an author who had a Twitter follower come up to her and suggest indelicately that she join him in his room. 3 99% of the people you meet on the internet are regular folks – even when you’ve gotten the attention of a big audience. Thing is, the internet’s a really, really big place – and that 1% can be trouble. Maybe you’re just being paranoid. Maybe you will never experience this sort of issue – or never run into one of the creepers. But the risks if you’re wrong are pretty damn high. It’s a risk I’m definitely not willing to take.

These are my tips; share yours in the comments!

1 That’s a professional term, you know.
2 Though that’s a good reason, too.
3 Secondhand story. And maybe it was a male author and female fan. Or two males, etc. You don’t know the details, but the point’s made regardless – that’s how obfuscation works.

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